Monday, November 4, 2013

Discussion topic - informal mail art exchange

Do you participate in our “informal mail art exchange?"
What has your experience been like?

One of our swappers reached out to me this week.
She sent 22 pieces of mail to people on the list.  After 4 weeks, she’s only had 2 responses, and she’s disappointed.  She wasn’t expecting immediate 1 for 1 responses, but thought she’d get more than 2 pieces of mail.  From other comments and emails I’ve received, I think some of you have had similar experiences.

I’m wondering how many people on the list are still active.  The list has been up for a long time, and some people who initially added their addresses might not be swapping anymore.  A few people have removed themselves (or asked me to remove them) but there are lots of names and addresses I don’t recognize – people who haven’t participated in any formal swaps, and people who never leave comments or add to the “received” page.  Perhaps these folks just aren’t interested any more?  That’s okay, but there’s not really a way to tell if someone on the list is active or not.  I hate to delete anyone who’s been happily and quietly swapping.  It’s certainly not a requirement join a formal swap or comment on the blog.

We all know that “informal” mail is unpredictable.  Response times differ.  (I know personally that it can take me MONTHS to reply to mail – I’m not proud of it and I always intend to get better at it, but that’s the reality for me.  I’m slow!).  And sometimes when you send mail to a stranger you never hear back.  That’s just the way it goes.  Still, it surprised me to hear she’d only heard back from 2 out of 22.  Is it a particularly busy time of year for people?  Or is this a dead list?

So my first question for you all:
 1.  Do you have any ideas on how to keep the “informal mail art exchange” list up to date?  Should I delete the whole thing and ask everyone to re-post their addresses if they are still interested in swapping?  Or do you have other thoughts on how to remove inactive addresses and keep the active ones?  (keep in mind, I’m not looking to institute new rules or procedures for mailing – the list is intended to be informal and isn’t something I can really moderate)

My second question is a more general one:
2.  How do you get the most bang for your buck as a mail artist? (Meaning do you have any good tips for increasing the flow of mail to your box and improving your overall response rate)
Here’s one thought I had (if you’re looking to increase your odds of getting a response) – look at the “received” comments posted in the last few months.  It will give you a sense of who’s active in the group and you can target your mailings to those people.   It’s not a requirement to acknowledge your mail in the “received” forum, and there may be plenty of active swappers not commenting there, but I see the same names pop up over and over in that setting so I know some of you are sending/getting lots of good mail!  If you don’t currently post any comments on the received page, you might consider doing so to let others know you are actively swapping.

Here are some reflections and advice based on my own experience:
I’ve been sending mail art for almost 3 years now.  I don’t keep lists, but I’d guess that I’ve mailed to hundreds of different people over the years.  I was a member of the International Union of Mail Artists for a while, I wrote to a lot of people on the “Good Mail Day” list, I sent informal mail to Swap-Bot partners, I joined a lot of postcard swapsLots of those people I never heard back from, or swapped with once or twice before they disappeared.  It used to bother me a lot.  But I found that by casting my net wide, I kept busy, and from those hundreds over the years I’ve now got about 50 people I exchange with on a fairly regular basis.  However, my definition of “regular” might be different from someone else’s.  Some people I hear from every few weeks, some people only once or twice a year.  I might get three pieces of mail from a friend before I even get around to replying, (or I might send 3 pieces to the same person before I hear back) but over time I’ve built friendships and understandings, and with most of my mail friends we have stopped “taking turns” in the traditional sense.  When I get into “mail mode” I will send to everyone on my list whether I’ve heard from them recently or not, and whether I’ve sent to them recently or not.   This is what works for me.  Having built this core group of like-minded souls, I no longer worry if I send something into the void.  I probably have an 80-90% “return on investment” and the relationships I’ve formed are precious to me.  It took time to get to this place.  I’m glad I stuck with it, and I’m grateful to all of my mail art friends for putting up with my erratic response times.

I think that’s my rambling way of saying send a lot of mail.  Keep sending it.  Create for the absolute joy of creating, release it to the world, hope for the best.  Know that everyone has a different approach to mail art.  No approach is “right” or “wrong” but if you are trying to correspond with someone who has totally different expectations, you are bound to get frustrated.  When you find people who create/write/respond in a way that is similar to you, embrace it.  Ask those people how they built their mail list – ask for virtual introductions to their friends so that you can widen your circle.  Sometimes all it takes is the patience and persistence to make a few key connections.  Once you click with with a few people, you can help each other out and follow each other’s trails. 
Okay – your turn!  Share your tips for a happy mailbox, and your thoughts on how to keep our MMSA address list updated.


  1. I'm still sending postcards, and the occassional envie of "stuff." There are a few people that I actively communicate back and forth with, although I'm not much of a verbal correspondent. I love playing in the swaps, and have enjoyed the non-postcard swaps a lot.
    If I am one of the folks you have not heard back from, I'm sorry, and you are probably in my "reply" pile.

  2. I enjoy sending and receiving MMSA. I have noticed a decline, of people not responding when I send them something. Sometimes I think maybe they left the group. I want to continue, I respond within the week of receiving. Whomever responds to this post, I will be sure to mail something too!
    My name and address is the same as before, keep me on list please.
    Nancy Calvert
    1013 Chapel Hill
    St. Peter's, MO. 63376
    Also, Thank You for asking our input....I always put MMSA.....that says it all.

    1. Ha! I got a card from you when you had foot surgery and it slipped down between two larger postcards in my 'reply to' box and I just found it the other day. I walked a card out to the mailbox about an hour ago so be on the lookout!

  3. Three thoughts:

    FIRST: When submitting a job application to a company, it's not unusual for that info to expire in 6 months, or a year. Perhaps a similar "delete" date might help, maybe starting a 2014 "informal swap" tab in January, and then deleting (once a quarter, maybe) any that are over six months old? Active swappers will likely remember, largely because they are active and interested in mail art, yet eliminate those whose interests turn out to be more fleeting.

    SECOND: If receiving something in return is crucial, the organized swaps are the best way to go (thank you, Karen, Our Liege, for your unflagging devotion to this). And between the Flickr group pictures and the pix Karen posts of the cards that come in for each swap, it is easier to tell who seems to be active and who is merely lurking.

    THIRD: I have experienced "dud" listings as well, as I suspect anyone has who has ever sent out mail art, pen pal letters, or even annual Christmas cards to extended family. However, I have learned to enjoy that which I CAN control, and not worry overmuch about that which I CAN'T. I can enjoy making the art, and sending it off, and knowing that I likely will brighten someone's day . . . whether I hear back about it or not. But otherwise, that's it. Basically, for me, sending off a piece of mail art is like flipping a coin into a wishing well. My joy comes in seeing yet one more coin glittering on the fountain bottom. I don't have to know what my penny ultimately went for.

    Having said that, it is helpful to know what exactly people are looking for in informal swaps. Mail art is an blend of writing and art, of message and image, with some practitioners leaning more toward one end or the other, some are novice while others are advanced, and some online postings I've seen online (sad to say, it sounds) sound more like bystanding gawkers with really no interest in mail art but who would like to receive a neat, handmade freebie in the post. Some of those individuals are likely to always be around, no matter what you do. Still, there might be some benefit to a tab for those new to mail art, with posts on mail art etiquette as well as elementary information on how to create a post card. You've done some on various glues, etc., but some people who have listed their addresses may truly want to jump in, but they don't know how. Maybe a future video of our lovely blog hostess talking through how she creates a simple collage postcard for a swap?

    Aside from Karen's organized swaps, I have yet to receive any random mail art from anyone (although I have received some very nice follow-up emails after swaps on this site). My mailbox barrenness doesn't upset me though, because I have lived long enough to realize that it takes time (and often, luck) to develop good friendships, especially by mail. Plus, I know that life happens to all of us, even if we'd rather be attending to other things, so sometimes we just have to be patient.

    1. Joanne, I think there's an invisible "divide" between the informal swappers and the group swappers. I've probably never seen your name (or address). When I joined MMSA it was on the informal swap page. I initially sent out about 60 pieces, and didn't hear a thing back for a looooooooooong time. Honi C.

  4. I've been sending out postcards here and there when I have the time and I've heard back from almost everyone I'd sent to. I've also responded to all those who've sent me goodies. I think checking the 'Received' page is a good way to see who's still playing, but then again maybe some folks who are playing might not always comment on there...?? Half the fun is the surprise of what you might find in the mailbox--there's no guarantee, there's no time limit or schedule--that's what makes it a surprise. If you're only doing this to 'get something back', maybe you're missing the real fun of creating and sending love out into the world--with no expectations or strings attached...

  5. Interesting discussion. I am on the informal mail art exchange and have made some great connections and friendships. I do think that sending mail art into the world is a leap of faith and may be disappointing when not reciprocated. I reply to every letter as I understand that disappointment. Sometimes patience is also important; I live in Canada on the west coast and a US letter from east coast may take 3 weeks to arrive. All the best to you.....when we meet in the mail!

  6. I'll add my two-cents worth to this discussion....I don't trust informal-swap list information for all the reasons listed. If they were updated on a regular basis, I suppose I'd be more inclined to feel okay about them. However, I like to send a tiny "feeler" card out to artists I'm interested in swapping with -- a quick inquiry on a regular postcard or a copy of a postcard piece of art I've made. If they are truly interested in swapping with me, they let me know. For those of you willing to make art and send it off without knowing it will be welcomed, that probably sounds waaaay too complicated. It works for me tho, so it's an idea to consider. I also take my swaps very in I'm not willing to send and not receive! Guess it just all depends on the person. If you would begin a new open-swap mailing list a couple times a year or once a year, I think that would help, Karen. I applaud you for all that you do for us -- so I'm not wanting to add to the load....Thanks so much!

  7. Maybe a way to ensure that participants are still interested in playing along would be to include your e-mail address along with your mailing address. That way you can contact them via e-mail and see if they are even interested in doing a swap with you. May take some of the surprise out of it but you will be ensuring that you are swapping with someone who has time for it right now. I save "surprise" swapping for those individuals who I have been exchanging mail with for awhile or for those times I am just in a giving mood and don't really care if I get any thing in return.

    Just an idea....

  8. I'm in the send-it-just-to-send-it camp, not because I'm expecting something back. It's great when I *do* get a return card but not necessary, altho I prolly won't send to that person again if I never hear from them.
    As far as replying to the ones I get, I do always send a card in return even tho it may take me a while - usually weeks, not months. You never know what's going on in someone's life when your card arrives and they may need some time before they can get one back out to you. And because I always send a card in return, I never go post that I received one from so-and-so, so if someone checks that list to see who's active, they won't see me.
    I also think it's a good idea to delete either old ones or all of them a few times a year. You could simply do a quick blog post - hey, just deleted the informal list, go sign up if you still want to. Then folks could take some time off, if they wanted/needed to, before they sign up again.
    All that said, you do so much already that you should do whatever's easiest for you. Thanks for all the wonderful swaps - they keep me making art!

  9. Just in these few comments, look at the range of how mail art is viewed. It's an interesting topic and I'm sure answers will be as different as the people who take the time to answer. Personally I'm in the "send it out into the world" camp and if I get something back, I'm a happy camper. That said, I do kind of keep track and if I send 3-4 to someone with nary a response, I take them off my list.

    Like you Karen, I started building my list of 'regular' swappers by joining every postcard, mail art swap opportunity I came across. While I almost always got the allotted number of cards in the swap, and I always sent a follow-up thank you postcard, those rarely developed into regular swap partners. There are a few exceptions and those are the gold nuggets you hope for when you send your mail out.

    I have received several cards from the informal list and it's always a pleasant surprise. I ALWAYS respond. I always respond to every card I receive though it may take a few weeks. I tend to make mail art in batches once a month or so and try to catch up in that way. If you're expecting a quicker response, I may not be your gal.

    I didn't even notice the received page and have never posted there but I try to email when I receive a card (if there's an email address included). I could certainly try to remember to post there when I receive from an MMSA participant. (note to self, add this to the to-do list! :))

    I have to say, from my humble start of nervously participating in a couple postcard swaps (what if the recipient doesn't like my card??) to my current level of active mail art has been a journey of discovery and pleasure. I had no idea it would become such a big part of my creative life. Karen, this site is such a treasure - your work and energy to feel the mail art community is much appreciated and my art calendar would have such a big hole in it without the weekly themes. Thanks so much for all you do!

  10. I also think starting a new informal list is a good idea. I started MMSA in Aug/Sept. and sent out "feeler" mail art. I've continued exchanging with those who returned mail art. Some of those on the list since Spring 2013 tended not to return mail art (NOT all of you!). From my first mailing, I received more than 2 responses so I can see where that would be discouraging. Thanks, Karen, for trying to informally organize all of us mail arters (ok, doubt that's a word). Send me mail art! I'll send you mail art! Peace, Valerie Kemp

  11. Hi, I admit that I am a lurker to this site for a while now. However I thought that I should my two cents in this as well. The reason that I "lurk" is because I am new to this mail art and still trying to figure this whole thing out. Believe me, I have been watching You-Tube videos and googling on this. My big confusion is what to put inside the mail art. I have a penpal for over twenty years which we used to write letters to each other. But nowadays, we only send birthday and Christmas cards because there is Facebook, Twitter, My Space and etc. So if something exciting happens to me, I can tell her online instead of having her to wait at least two weeks to get my letter and maybe a month or so for her response.

    I actually do miss writing letters. But I have trouble of understanding that you take the time to decorate the envelope and mail it without a note, telling the person to have a nice day. I'm sorry, that doesn't make much sense to me.

    My friend who partipated in mail art, she told me that you send drawings, toys, stickers, random supplies and such. Which will make my "Mail Art Letter" into a "Mail Art Package" So yes, I am looking at this money wise as well. This is what I used to tell my students in the classes that I used to teach, "We are not cheap, we're broke."

    But I do like the idea of having a new informal list and having it updated every six months or so. People move or they lose interest. And even emailing the person to tell them that you did get their mail art and one is coming to you. I know that it may ruin the surprise, but I actually lost packages in the mail.

    That is my two cents in this.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Lesley! I'm always happy to hear from new folks who've been hanging out behind the scenes. I think everyone's definition of mail art is different. I personally send hand-made postcards, and write a brief note on them. I occasionally send actual letters to people I've gotten to know through post-card exchanges, but postcards are more my thing. I've received beautiful empty envelopes, I've received envelopes with letters, pretty paper, interesting collage images, ATCs, etc. - usually just a few tidbits that wouldn't raise the cost of mailing past a regular first class stamp. and I get lots and lots of beautiful hand made postcards!

    2. I agree with you, Lesley. I am what could be considered a "low volume" swapper, since I'd rather swap fewer, higher-quality things, that lots of things that, like you said, simply say, "Have a nice day!" Yes, there is a place for such "art-and-quote," but I always strive for more integrated pieces.

      I think you bring out a valid point, of how there are many avenues to communicate (email, text, blogs, mail art, etc.), and my guess is that these are all too new as vehicles to really know how to best use them. Emails and blogs certainly are nice, but I don't think they are the best for every message, and there certainly is something about holding a real piece of art/writing/photography, etc.

      I do email, and phone, etc., but I have a pile of non-mail-art cards that I've received over the years, and save. These are mostly of the "Thank You" variety, and not tied to any particular holiday. Most of them have very little writing on them, but nevertheless, they represent an expression of concern from someone I personally knew, so I cherish them very much. Of course, it might have been nicer had they written a letter, or added a photograph, or decorated the envelope, but I suspect that they weren't sure how to do that. Still, I LOVE EACH ONE anyway, even if it is a commercial card with "Thanks for bringing those cookies to our family. It really brightened our day. You were so thoughtful."

      I do love reading books of collected letters by various people, and I truly LOVE feeling that I can be in someone else's life. In an email to Karen once, I mentioned something about the decor of the room I was in, and conjectured about her environment at work, and Karen tapped out a positively lovely-ishous description of her cinder-block office at work that made me feel like I was standing at her elbow, under the harsh fluorescent lights as her work day went by. This was the sort of writing that absolutely dazzles, and was perfect for an email, largely since IT WORKED. Words carried the message, and anything else (art, photography, etc.) would have distracted, in my opinion. Karen is an outstanding writer (meaning, honest and direct), and having worked professionally in writing and editing, I don't give out compliments easily. (Don't blush, Karen. It's true. One of the most exquisite things, in my mind, aside from Boeuf Bourguignon and homemade chocolate truffle ice cream, is reading one of Karen's essays.)

      A bit rambly, I guess, but each communication experience is unique, and what works best for one doesn't for another. Personally, though, I think there is a lot to say for the lovely letter, with art or photography that supports the message. You're not just sending paper and stamps, words and images, but instead a slice of life, coming short of aroma and savor, and each piece you send is unique, so presents its own creative challenges to overcome.

      And while the truly exciting things can be conveyed in a blog, I like mail art for the more mundane activities. One blog post by a MMSA swapper talked about how she had to go all over her town to find a pack of playing cards for the APC swap. She left in the morning, figuring that it would be easy, but it seemed that, for whatever reason, there were no playing cards to be had anywhere around. This was hardly an exciting event, but as I read the essay, I felt that I was following her around for the day, enjoying her company, her good-natured patience, and coming to know the city she lived in. Hardly an exciting thing, but that little essay has still stuck with me to this day.

  12. Interesting discussion -- I think I have the opposite "problem" -- too many requests to swap mail. But that's a good problem to have...I know it sometimes take a while to get things started but I encourage everyone to stick with it because sending and receiving mail art is just so much fun. I get a lot of folks asking me who they can trade with....and I often refer them to MMSA. I think a swap is a good way to start and then go on to introduce yourself....

  13. It is interesting to read everyone's take on this topic. I am working on mail art as my 365 project this year and I am pretty much on target. I can understand the disappointment with very low return. It's not always easy but I have gotten to where I make my cards just because I enjoy it and then send them out into the world hoping it brightens someone's day a bit. I love the MMSA swaps for the fact that you get what you send out. I do keep a list of mail received and always reply to what I receive as long as it has a mailing address so that I can. That way I am sending out to people who reply to me and if you don't you just naturally fall lower but not off my list. I'm not so good at emailing or posting a thank you. I want to reply in the mail. I'm like Karen though and it might take me a while to reply. I seem to get around to sending out in batches and I honestly have about a month turn around time. Hey, I figure it will be a happy surprise in your mail box. I would vote for something like a quarterly or semi annual deleting of the list if that worked for Karen. I have mailed to a few people from the list off and on so I haven't kept up with the reply rate.

  14. Since I haven't really been participating much here, I don't know what my 2 cents on this topic are really worth, but I feel like throwing them out there anyway.

    I think that if you're going to participate in any kind of informal mail art thing then you really can't go into it expecting a lot (hoho, that's easier said than done). Informal by definition is casual, irregular and unofficial. You are going to come across people who are slow to respond or won't respond at all. If you need that affirmation that getting something in return brings, official structured swaps are the way to go.

    Like a couple others have mentioned, I've gotten to the point now where the most important and rewarding part of mail art for me is the actual making and sending. I don't require a reply or acknowledgement. That doesn't mean that either won't be appreciated, just that I'm used to the give and take. I'll admit: I don't respond to everyone (for various reasons or short-comings on my part). I also have my share of people who haven't responded to me. So it goes.

    That's one of the reasons why I took my info off the informal exchange thread. I felt it wasn't fair for me to leave it up there - for me or the people sending to me. I was getting the feeling that people were expecting more than I could give. Obviously, as the comments here illustrate, not everyone "mail arts" the same. I'm not one who can sit and easily journal out a thoughtful pen pal letter or keep up with regular bi-weekly mailings. It's taken me a few days to even compose this beast of a comment. When it comes to making art though, I sit down and bam: the flood-gates open and I get shit done. When I send a piece of my artwork out, it is most likely going to have a simple, but happy message. All I ever hope for is that it will brighten someone's day.

    I feel that once you respond via snail mail to a piece of mail art, the exchange is complete. If more happens after that, cool. If not, cool. I don't really go out of my way to continue it past that first exchange a lot of the time. Either because it doesn't occur to me that that person might want to hear from me again (I'm kind of a loner like that) or I get busy doing other things and forget (I keep a mail log, but I don't really use it as reference for sending to people again - at least I haven't in a long time). I've got a lot of other pots on my mail art stove: an active Swap-bot group where I host swaps regularly (and its own informal mail art network), IUOMA, Flickr, Tumblr - plus a few people who've become more regular mail art friends. It's easiest for me to continue a mail art correspondence when I have contact with the person elsewhere (like via any of the aforementioned sites). At least then I know they're still kicking around and don't find me to be a complete boor :)

    I think a quarterly - or bi-annually or whatever - refreshing of the list is a good idea. I know there are a lot of spammy types who jump on the thread or the fly-by-night people who want to try and get as much as they can without putting anything back in. Maybe there's some other feature that can be utilized - something in Blogger or a password-protected Google Doc or on the Facebook page (I don't know if you've got it set as group there or a fan page)? Something that would require an extra step that maybe only sincerely interested folks would bother taking?

    I'm rambling. Time to stop typing and go make something.

  15. I am still somewhat out of the loop with MMSA since my move on 1 October. I have been in my new home since 17 October but no mailboxes [or dumpsters] here yet. A new experience, living in the midst of construction and the creation of a brand spanking new multi-generational community... So I read this with a sad heart as I have been participating since I started early this year, up until the day I left the Wee Cottage on 30 September. I thought I 'd BE back by Now but I am NOT... yet, and I know we're having a break in December... so, just to say so, I apologise for any of my NON-responses [which are really NOT yet, I have a batch of cards in an envelope I've just NOT yet sat down to respond to] and a hope that all are well and finding JOY in this wonderful adventure. I even received a couple of forwarded cards at my "for Now" mailing address at my mum's. missing you all and grateful for this blog where I can somewhat share in the process. xoxo

  16. I'll add my redundant reply (it's already been said in the above comments). I LOVE receiving mailART. I LOVE making new friends. Somehow it's easier through the mail. After relocating 3 years ago, I still haven't found any kindred souls to hang out with locally, so my new mailART friends fill help meet that need.
    I understand how life gets busy, health issues cramp creativity, caring for family needs take energy too. My enthusiasm quickly turns to dismay as mailART piles up unanswered but I try to reply to each piece I receive. There's also the "comparison" damper. My art isn't as clever, beautiful, stunning as yours. But the main point is to enjoy the process, right? Several of you have encouraged me to try new media or techniques. I really do like the informal swaps. It's all good.
    I've long struggled with communication skills, but clear and concise seems to work well. "Do you want to continue swapping?" "Let's continue..." "Hope to hear back from you." or "Mail Me More Art Please!" all seem quite direct. One-time swaps often leave the last recipient hanging...
    It's a community of similar-minded people that Karen has brought together under the mailART umbrella and I am very grateful for her hard work, and that I happened upon this site. Thanks, and all good wishes... Honi C.